This involves taking a piece of tissue (sample) either from the throat or from a lymph node in the neck, if it appears to be involved by the cancer. A pathologist then looks at the sample under a microscope to check for cancer cells. This is often the only sure way to tell if you have cancer. If the suspicious area can be safely accessed through the mouth, your doctor may take a sample for biopsy in the office. However, this is often not possible because the cancer may be too far back and some patients need to be asleep under a general anaesthetic for the biopsy. This is usually done as a day procedure.
Your doctor may order one of two types of biopsies of the lymph nodes in your neck. Both are usually done using an ultrasound scan to make sure the needle is in the right spot.
- Needle biopsy (Fine Needle Aspiration or FNA) is used when there is a lump (enlarged lymph node) in the neck that could have cancer cells in it. During the procedure, your doctor will take some cells from the lump using a needle. It may feel a bit uncomfortable during the biopsy.
- Core biopsy uses a bigger needle to get more cells for the biopsy. This is more uncomfortable than needle biopsy so doctors only use this if it is really needed.